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Commentary

Via dollaro$a On the ‘Third Way’

Gregory elliott‘i

have always believed that politics is first and foremost about ideasʼ, confides Tony Blair in the opening sentence of last yearʼs Fabian pamphlet The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century. In the event, as the case of ʻstakeholdingʼ indicates, the prime minister has a habit of discarding big ideas as rapidly as he acquires them. Given the chronic immediatism of contemporary politics, exemplified by a ʻNew Labourʼ lately embarrassed by its train of spivs and chancers, the ʻThird Wayʼ may well suffer the same fate – and this despite the intellectual reinforcement supplied by Anthony Giddensʼs matching reflections, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (Polity, 1998). Advertising an intimacy between Houghton and Downing streets, its author blurb maintains that the director of the LSE is ʻfrequently referred to in the UK as Tony Blairʼs guru [and] has made a strong impact on the evolution of New Labourʼ – hubris prompting one French commentator to nominate him as the ʻorganic intellectual of Blairism and author of its Little Blue Bookʼ. If critical reaction to date has ranged from the incredulous to the contemptuous, the chief proponent of Thirdism has mainly himself to blame. Annunciations of a political year zero by the Antonian Calendar leave as many bothered and bewildered as bewitched; while intimations of the ʻend of ideologyʼ invite Régis Debrayʼs rebuff of a scoop a mere two centuries old. Best regarded as the tribute paid by pragmatist vice to ideological virtue, Blairʼs confident prospectus for a seemingly very English via media is in fact eloquent testimony to the enervation of actually existing social democracy.

Betwixity

The setting for the re-edition of the Third Way is a putatively post-socialist universe in which, according to Giddens, ʻthere are no alternatives to capitalismʼ of the sort historically projected by reformist (let alone revolutionary) socialists. Post-war Keynesian social democracy, intent upon a fundamental modification of capitalism, is now no more viable than the pre-war Marxist social democracy aspiring to its abolition, and ʻthe arguments that remain concern how far, and in what ways, capitalism should be governed and regulatedʼ. Amid ʻthe major revolutions of our timeʼ – foremost among them the ʻglobalizationʼ over which Simon Bromley cast a sceptical eye in RP 80 – adaptation and reorientation are the order of the day.

ʻThird Wayʼ, then, is shorthand for a ʻmodernizationʼ of social democracy, acknowledged by Blair to be ʻwork in progressʼ. Advanced as an alternative to collectivist ʻOld Leftʼ and hyper-individualist ʻNew Rightʼ, what are its contours? Part of the devil lies in the prepositional detail. Is it a way between – or one beyond – the antonyms of the endlessly serviceable idiom of ʻnewʼ and ʻoldʼ? Blair himself seems not altogether sure.

His centennial ʻvisionʼ amounts to a syncretism posing as a synthesis:The ʻThird Wayʼ … is the best label for the new politics which the progressive centre-left is forging in Britain and beyond. [It] stands for a modernized social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice and the goals of the centre-left, but flexible, innovative and forward-looking in the means to achieve them.… it is a third way because it moves decisively beyond an Old Left preoccupied by state control, higher taxation and producer interests; and a New Right treating public investment, and often the very notions of ʻsocietyʼ and collective endeavour, as evils to be undone. My vision for the 21st century is of a popular politics reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic.… The Third Way is not an attempt to split the difference between Right and Left. It is about traditional values in a changed world.

Blair thus asserts the endurance of social-democratic values alongside a ʻpermanent revisionismʼ in respect of policies (ʻa continual search for better means to meet our goalsʼ in a ʻchanging worldʼ). However, the duly indicated values – ʻequal worthʼ, ʻopportunity for allʼ, ʻresponsibilityʼ and ʻcommunityʼ – whatever else they are, are scarcely social-democratic, and crucially omit equality in anything other than a liberal acceptation. For his part Giddens, while likewise defining the Third Way as ʻan attempt to transcend both old style social democracy and neoliberalismʼ, reaffirms the centrality of equality to the Left, ranking it first in his value hierarchy. But rejecting ʻequality of opportunityʼ on the grounds of the ʻdeep inequalities of outcomeʼ it would entail, he indeterminably redefines inequality as ʻexclusionʼ and equality as ʻinclusionʼ.

Thereafter, ʻequality as inclusionʼ figures prominently in Giddensʼs third way programme, together with such eminently desirable goods as the ʻnew democratic state (the state without enemies)ʼ, the ʻdemocratic familyʼ, and the (compulsorily new) ʻnew mixed economyʼ. The evasion of ʻpowerful realitiesʼ remarked of Giddensʼs earlier ʻutopian-realistʼ Beyond Left and Right by Michael Rustin (RP 74), is endemic in the Blair–Giddens agenda. An irenic rhetoric of reconciliation, abstracting from strategic considerations and depoliticizing government into the consensual administration of things, discounts or underplays palpably opposed material interests and social forces, ignoring the fact that a serious reformist politics is, of necessity, adversarial. Thus, when Giddens writes that the ʻnew mixed economy looks … for a synergy between public and private sectors, utilizing the dynamism of markets but with the public interest in mind. It involves a balance between regulation and deregulation, on a transnational as well as national and local levels; and a balance between the economic and non-economic in the life of societyʼ, he risks Engelsʼs sarcasm on ʻsocial quacks, who … profess … to redress, without any danger to capital or profit, all sorts of social grievancesʼ.

As it happens, this would be unjust. Unlike Blair, Giddens both professes not to consider economic globalization an incorrigible ʻforce of natureʼ and proposes to levy the Tobin tax on the virtual economy of the financial markets, insisting that ʻlack of political willʼ is the central obstacle to its imposition. As he pointedly notes, ʻIt makes no sense to contest market fundamentalism on the local level but leave it to reign on the global one.ʼ For Blair, on the other hand, ʻthinking the unthinkableʼ is restricted to redeployment of social-democratic dirigisme from economic to social policy, where recrimination against ʻstatismʼ is forgotten. The hypocrisies of ʻcommunityʼ (not to mention ʻthe international communityʼ) are patent: so much honey on a sharp knife.

The ʻunderclassʼ produced by close on two decades of neo-liberal social engineering is to be ʻincentivizedʼ and ʻre-engineeredʼ by the communitarian state; ʻcompaniesʼ, meanwhile, ʻwill devise ways to share with their staff the wealth their know-how createsʼ.

Encounters of the third kind

Belying its publicity pitch, the reorientation to which the Third Way beckons represents not some supersession of the legacies of ʻOld Leftʼ and ʻNew Rightʼ, but rather a pro-found accommodation to the verities, values and policies of the latter. That this should coincide with the erosion of global neo-liberal hegemony attendant upon economic crisis in Asia suggests an unwelcome historical parallel with what Ross McKibbin and Eric Hobsbawm have dubbed ʻVery Old Labourʼ. Fidelity to post-war foreign-policy traditions is evident in New Labourʼs commitment to the tax-and-spend warfare state, and its addiction to the ʻspecial relationshipʼ with the USA as a post-imperial Viagra, inducing the yuletide spectacle of nuclear disarmers turned B-52 liberals. Continuity with the pre-Keynesian economic orthodoxy fatally embraced by the 1929–31 administration of MacDonald and Snowden was apparent in this governmentʼs initial, defining gesture: surrender of one of social democracyʼs key regulatory instruments – monetary policy – to central bankers with an exclusively anti-inflationary mandate. ʻTaking the politics out of interest ratesʼ, just as they had earlier been taken out of tax rates, New Labour promoted a consumerist model of politics without the choice.

As to the European credentials of the Third Way, the Keynesianism renounced at the local level is not envisaged for the continental. Despite the predominance of centre-left governments throughout the European Union, consummated by the arrival of a Red–Green coalition in its preeminent economic power, New Labour has shown no inclination to query the impeccably Hayekian dispositions for the ʻartillery of commoditiesʼ made at Maastricht, from lethal convergence criteria to untrammelled Central Bank. Where German finance minister Lafontaine echoes the full-employment vocation of social democracy, Blair and Brown intone the neo-liberal litany of ʻprudenceʼ. The clear and present danger is that an unprecedented opportunity for European social democracy to display its reformist mettle – to embark upon a second way – will be needlessly, and shamefully, squandered.

For Blair ʻEurope should develop a Third Wayʼ, but only in the sense of a compromiseformation ʻbetween the nation-state … and a European super-stateʼ. Those inclined to detect in the New Labour ʻprojectʼ a nascent British Christian democracy should think again. Roman Catholic communicant he may be, but the prime minister seems oblivious of the social teaching of the Church, encapsulated in John Paul IIʼs Centesimus annus, that adroit post-Communist update of the famous papal encyclical of 1891, Rerum novarum. Manifestly antipathetic to the continental ʻsocial modelʼ inspired as much by Christian as by social-democratic thought,

Blairʼs design for the EU eschews any Delorsian entrenchment of such solidarism at the supranational level to counter globalitarianism.

Indeed, he discloses the underlying logic of the Third Way when he avers that ʻEuropeʼs aim should be to match the dynamism of the single market of the United States without losing the values of social cohesion which its Member States shareʼ – as if the connection between market ʻdynamismʼ and social incohesion across the Atlantic were fortuitous. To that end, Blair offers a recipe precisely for perdition: ʻEurope needs to pursue economic reforms to make its product, labour and capital markets more flexible in order for the euroʼs success and create new jobsʼ (sic).

In other words, an allegedly Third Way for Britain and Europe is polarized towards something like the American Way: mid-Atlantic laissez-faire with a communitarian face. As Hobsbawm has argued, the ʻprogressive centre-leftʼ invoked by Blair involves not just an abandonment of social democracy, but a departure from ʻthe central tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries on the continentʼ. Symbolized by the Washington encounter between Clinton, Blair and co. last September, what it betokens is the convergence of a post-revisionist European social democracy with the American ʻNewʼ Democratic Party of Clinton, whose signature of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act at Republican behest reversed Roosevelt. When, in habitual decisionist style, Blair decreed Labour a ʻpro-business and pro-enterprise partyʼ at its annual conference, a pan-capitalist polity was foreshadowed in which Labour would function as substitute caretaker of a broadly neo-liberal order, playing Democrats to the Conservativesʼ Republicans. Were that eventuality to transpire, the UK would warrant Nyerereʼs verdict on the USA: a one-party state which, with typical extravagance, has two of them.

If this is a half-accurate reading, then the implications of the Third Way are radical. And novel. The ʻamazingly unhistoricalʼ nature of the debate over it has been bemoaned by W.G. Runciman and others, who have identified the New Liberalism and the Social Democratic Party as domestic precursors. In truth apprised of the frequency and lability of the term in twentieth-century European political history, Giddens alludes to its emergence on the hard Right after 1917–18 to designate an alternative to Western liberalism and Eastern Bolshevism; its migration to the Left – the refurbished Socialist International (especially its Scandinavian wing) – after 1945 to denote a course between American capitalism and Russian Communism; and its appropriation by varieties of reform Communism (e.g. Italian Eurocommunism) in the 1960s and 1970s to signal equidistance from Stalinism and social democracy. While not supposing that genealogy is destiny, Norberto Bobbio authoritatively reminds us that ʻ[t]he history of political thought – or perhaps I should say, political fantasy – can produce thousands of examples of such third waysʼ. Registering, and ratifying, the movement of the centre of political gravity sharply to the right, the Blairite Third Way retains the characteristics of what Bobbio calls the ʻinclusive middleʼ. Topographically, it occupies a Centre determined by Thatcherite parameters, while claiming to transcend (old) Left and (new) Right. In conditions of British parliamentary ʻdemocracyʼ, the upshot is to disenfranchise the former and radicalize the latter.

The matrix of the bizarre combination of realism and utopianism, fatalism and voluntarism, that is New Labour lies in the decisive defeats inflicted on the Left in the 1980s. Its Third Way offers a discursive transfiguration of the consequent balance of political forces, affecting supersession, reflecting accommodation. An idea whose time had gone before its umpteenth coming, tertium non datur.

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